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Sir Walter Scott. (1771–1832). Guy Mannering.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

SIR WALTER SCOTT belonged by descent to a large family which had for generations lived in the border counties of the south of Scotland, and many of whose members had been heroes of such exploits as their descendant was to make familiar to all the world. His father, Walter Scott, the first of the stock to become a city dweller, was by profession a writer to the signet; his mother, Anne Rutherford, was the daughter of a professor of medicine in Edinburgh University. The future novelist was born in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771, and attended the high school and university of his native town. His delicacy as a child led to his spending much of his youth in the country, where he early developed a love for the ballads and tales of the district, and began that vast collection of historical and legendary lore on which he drew to such admirable purpose through thirty years of authorship.

After serving some time as an apprentice to his father, he studied for the bar and became an advocate in 1792. He built up a fair practice and later obtained some remunerative legal offices, but by the time he was thirty he was feeling a strong attraction to literature. He had already done some translating from the German, and in 1802–3 published the fruits of years of collecting as “The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,” in which he incorporated some ballads of his own composition. His first long poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” 1805, was also, to a large extent, the outcome of these interests; and its surprising success encouraged him to further attempts in the same vein, the most successful being “Marmion” in 1808, and “The Lady of the Lake” in 1810. His later narrative poems showing a falling off in popularity, he began a new experiment in 1814 with the prose romance of “Waverley,” which was issued anonymously. In the next five years he produced nine Scottish novels which enjoyed an immense and immediate popularity, and when in “Ivanhoe” he made his first excursion into English history, the vogue was still further extended.

Meantime, Scott had bought land on Tweedside, had built the mansion of Abbotsford, and had set out to found a landed family. To meet the expenses which were incurred by this ambition be became a partner in a printing and publishing business—a venture which ended disastrously. The failure of a London banking house in 1826 brought down the firms of Constable and of Ballantyne, and ruined Scott.

This catastrophe brought out the heroic side of his nature. So far life had gone smoothly with him; he had made a great reputation in two branches of literature—for the authorship of the Waverley Novels, though not acknowledged till 1827, was widely suspected; he had been made a baronet; and his house had become a place of pilgrimage for hero-worshipers of all nations. He could have become a bankrupt and gone on living comfortably on the income of his offices and the earnings of his pen. This he refused to do. He made an arrangement with his creditors and set himself to pay his debts. Within two years he had got together nearly £40,000, and was able to make a first payment of thirty cents on the dollar. Turning out histories, biographies, criticisms, and fiction like a factory, he went on until the terrific strain broke him down, and he died on September 21, 1832.

Scott’s character is faithfully reflected in his writings. Though possessed of a vivid historical imagination and full of romantic enthusiasm, he had a strong basis of commonsense and a solid respect for the good things of this life. His most powerful ethical motive was a chivalrous sense of honor, but his nature was not a deeply spiritual one. He was no prophet, and he made no claim for his fiction beyond its power to give wholesome entertainment and to stimulate a patriotic interest in history. In his personal relations he was kindly and generous, capable of strong partisanship but above personal enmities. No literary man of his time had friends in so many different circles; and, though an aristocrat in theory, he had intimacies with men of all ranks. His power of loving and being loved extended to the lower animals; dogs, no bad judges of character, were devoted to him, and “even a pig,” says a biographer, “took a sentimental attachment to him.” The annals of literary men show no more wholesome, likable man.

Of his voluminous productions the Waverley Novels have by far the strongest assurance of permanent esteem. Though in his own lifetime “Ivanhoe” roused greatest enthusiasm in England, and “Quentin Durward” in France, the novels dealing with Scotland are to-day the main foundation of his reputation. As to the best among these there is no general agreement, but most readers place “Guy Mannering” near the head of the list, and many excellent judges place it first. It was written immediately after the success of “Waverley,” in the space of six weeks, and published in February, 1815. It was at Gilsland, near the “waste of Cumberland,” which he describes in it, that he met the French refugee’s daughter, Charlotte Mary Carpenter, who became his wife. James Hogg recognized in the hero of the novel a portrait of the author himself. The original of Dominie Sampson has been found in George Thomson, tutor of his children, for many years a member of his household, though this equation is by no means certain. Dandie Dinmont has been identified by some with Willie Eliot of Milburnholm, a border farmer whom he discovered in one of his annual “raids” in search of ballads, “though a Jamie Davidson, whom Scott did not know till after the novel was written, who kept mustard-and-pepper terriers, passed by the name afterward; and Lockhart thinks the portrait was filled up from Scott’s friend, William Laidlaw.” It was this William Laidlaw who acted as his amanuensis when, too ill to hold the pen, he dictated “The Bride of Lammermoor,” which, on its publication, the author read as a new work, having forgotten all but the story on which he had based it. In the introduction by the author will be found the story which he regarded as having suggested the plot, though other “sources” have been discovered, and also an account of the prototype of the great figure of Meg Merrilies.

Little light, however, is thrown on the secrets of Scott’s genius by the search for his “originals.” He did indeed draw on his wide acquaintance with people, as he drew on his vast memory for the legends he had heard and the history and romance he had read. Without huge accumulations of this sort it is clear that his works could never have been produced; but it is equally clear that there was needed also a power of conjuring up the life of the past as a living and moving pageant, a faculty of describing men and women as they lived, and a supreme gift for telling a story. Few writers have done as much to widen the imaginative sympathies of men to embrace ages and countries remote from their own, few have provided for young and old so great and varied possibilities of entertainment, none has left less to regret. For as Carlyle has insisted in an essay which does not fail in discrimination, Scott was above all a healthy man, and his work shares this virtue throughout.

The wholesome influence of Scott is not confined to his own novels. Their phenomenal success, as was inevitable, set a fashion, and every literature in Europe is the richer for it. He first showed the world the real possibilities of the historical romance, and the devotees of Freytag and Manzoni, of Dumas and Fenimore Cooper, are the debtors of Sir Walter Scott.

W. A. N.